What began just a few months ago with a group of friends in London helping each other out with freebie theatre tickets has become one of the most talked about new initiatives at this year’s Fringe.
The Theatre Ninjas iPhone app and website allows Fringe-goers to access a list of shows advertising free tickets for that day’s performance, provides links to reviews so they can make an informed choice, and supplies a password which is exchanged for a ticket at the box office. As of 17 August, the app had been downloaded 3,547 times and 186 shows had signed up to the scheme. A huge number of tickets pass through the app each day: an average of 750, around 80% of which are redeemed. That’s a lot of happy theatergoers, however you look at it.
Crucially though, the benefits extend to performers too. There are 2,453 shows at this year’s Fringe, up 17% from 2009, and although by all accounts it’s been a good year for ticket sales (the Fringe Society won’t release the actual figures until after the festival has finished), it seems fairly unlikely that the increase in punters will match the increase in shows. Finding an audience has always been one of the most challenging aspects of taking work to the Fringe; and with so much competition this year it’s tougher than ever.
The team behind Theatre Ninjas, nine recent graduates now working variously as theatre directors, actors, producers and choreographers, are all familiar with the nightmare of trying to get bums on seats at the largest arts festival in the world. The idea behind the initiative, explains Sophie Faulkner, one of the founders, is “to attract more diverse audiences and support emerging artists."
Additional founder Vanessa Fogarty describes the joy the "Ninjas" have felt at seeing shows that appeared on the app no longer requiring their services because word-of-mouth has spread to the point that they’re filling houses with paying audiences.
The extent to which the app has revolutionized the whole idea of papering—giving tickets away to guarantee an audience for a show—shouldn’t be underestimated. Papering through Theatre Ninjas allows performers to access “an active audience," describes Faulkner. "The audience who are using the app and looking at the website are actively looking for something to go and see, rather than just passing by, so you’re getting an audience who’s already taking an interest.”
The app is also proving popular with venues at the Fringe. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is the smaller, less well known venues that are leading the way, with names such Just the Tonic @ The Caves, Sweet, and theSpace appearing regularly on the app.
Jon Briley, co-founder of Five Pound Fringe, the umbrella organisation that oversees shows at venues including The GRV and The Tron, immediately saw the potential in the scheme: “As soon as I found out about it, I stopped all papering for our shows. People will take a papering ticket just as a way to get out of the rain, and they make terrible audiences, whereas with Theatre Ninjas, because they want to be there, they’re a decent audience.”
One of the Ninjas’ founding aims was to open people’s eyes to the variety of performance available and get audiences seeing work that they wouldn’t necessarily take a chance on otherwise. The team has been really pleased with the breadth of shows that have been made available to audiences via the app.
“If you’ve come up for the Edinburgh Festival experience”, explains Fogarty, “you are going to pay for maybe two shows a day if you’re on a budget. But to be able to pack your day with physical theatre, straight theatre, comedy, whatever you want to do, that is what makes your festival experience.”
There’s also anecdotal evidence to suggest that those using the app are being more adventurous with their non-Ninja Fringe choices as a result. Jon Briley is confident that the app will bring paying customers to his venues: “Every show that we do costs £5 and that isn’t a lot. If they come in for a show for free and really enjoy it and keep coming back day after day, it's a worthwhile thing to do. The Ninjas are offering a taster; a free sample.”
The team behind Theatre Ninjas hasn’t yet ironed out all the kinks—they’ve found it difficult to get users to check the app regularly enough, for example—but they are thrilled with the way the scheme has been received so far and are busy making plans for how it might live on beyond the end of the month. A bigger and better app for the Brighton Fringe Festival? A proper way of accessing free tickets across the London Fringe theatre scene? Including other arts events in the scheme? The Ninjas don’t know yet, but they’re looking forward to working it out.